Tears and laughs punctuated a memorial service yesterday in the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre for former University President Robben Wright Fleming, who passed away earlier this month at the age of 93.
University President Mary Sue Coleman, President Emeritus James Duderstadt, a former regent, Fleming’s three children and other campus figures shared their personal memories of Fleming, who served as president of the University from 1968 to 1977 and as interim president in 1988.
The speakers emphasized Fleming’s character, disarming humor and skillful navigation of the turmoil that gripped many college campuses in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Though she told audience members that she hadn’t knowing Fleming very well, Coleman expressed appreciation for his poise during such a tumultuous period.
“The University of Michigan was not damaged during that period of unrest, but rather made stronger, and I believe it was because of Robben’s matchless personality,” Coleman said. “He was the perfect leader for an imperfect time.”
“He approached crises as opportunities for growth, change and problem-solving,” said Henry Johnson, a former vice president of student services at the University.
Coleman also lauded Fleming’s contributions after the Black Action Movement student strike in 1970. The strike resulted in a commitment by the University to work toward 10-percent African-American student enrollment by 1973, many of whom were the first in their family to attend college.
Coleman said she met with approximately two-dozen such students in New York when they were taking part in a documentary on affirmative action in higher education, some 25 years after Fleming left the University in 1979.
“Among these first-generation college graduates, 95 percent of their sons and daughters had gone on to college — 95 percent of the children of men and women who themselves never imagined higher education as a part of their lives,” said Coleman. “That is the legacy of Robben Fleming.”
Coleman also read a letter from former president Harold Shapiro, who wrote that Fleming’s decision to offer him the vice presidency of academic affairs “decisively changed the path of (his) career.”
The Men’s Glee Club also paid tribute to Fleming by singing “Bright Morning Star” and the University alma mater, “The Yellow and Blue.” School of Music master’s student Kyle Stegall also offered a stirring rendition of Fleming’s favorite song, “Danny Boy.”
Multiple speakers mentioned Fleming’s preference for reaching out to people over meals, for example his preference for discussing important topics with colleagues over breakfast and inviting the staff of The Michigan Daily over for dinner with him and his wife, despite the publication’s criticism of his administration.
“It was a way of demonstrating that although our roles were adversarial, he didn’t take it personally,” said Laura Berman, a columnist for The Detroit News who served as co-editor of The Michigan Daily’s Sunday Magazine in 1975.
Fittingly, Fleming’s habit of writing his speeches in abbreviated form on table napkins just before he delivered them drew hearty laughs from the audience.
“I’m not sure if the Clements Library archives the presidents’ speeches, but if it does, there’s a box of table napkins with his words on them in there,” said former regent Nellie Varner (D–Detroit).
Varner spoke fondly of Fleming’s tremendous support for her during her rise through the University administration to her position as a regent, which, she said, was especially valuable because of the lack of mentors for professional women at the time.
“He said, ‘One day, I’m going to teach you how to run an organization. It doesn’t matter how large it is or how small it is — you’re the same person,’ ” Varner said.
Prior to her stint as a regent, Fleming also appointed Varner as the University’s first affirmative action officer in 1972 — a gesture Varner said helped pave the way for future female and minority administrators.
Duderstadt also remembered Fleming as a comforting presence, adding that Fleming gave him sound advice when Duderstadt encountered protestors during his time as president.
“ ‘A public university president should never regard the slings and arrows launched by others as personal attacks; rather, critics are simply angry with the institution,’ ” Duderstadt said.
Fleming’s children, Betsy DiMaggio, Nancy Reckford and James Fleming, concluded the service by giving their thanks and brief thoughts on their father.
“He would have loved the humorous tributes and kind words said about him today — I think that’s the way we’d all like to remember him here at Michigan,” Reckford said, gesturing to the stately picture of a smiling Fleming and bright yellow flowers at the center of the stage, next to the podium.
After the memorial, several University administrators who attended the event reflected on Fleming’s commitment to the University.
In an interview after the event, Provost Teresa Sullivan praised Fleming for his widespread impact on future University administrators.
“I think he was an inspiration for other presidents and not just for the people here at Michigan,” Sullivan said. “He was a man of integrity, and I hope I carry that with me.”
A student at the University while Fleming was president, E. Royster Harper, vice president for student affairs, said she thoroughly enjoyed the memorial service.
“It was very moving. He was everything they’ve said he was, and I remember because he was my president,” Harper said.